Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Doomed 1919 Hotel Pennsylvania - 401 Seventh Avenue

photo by Antigng

On May 9, 1916 the New York Hotel Record reported that the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's subsidiary, the Pennsylvania Terminal Real Estate Company, had announced plans "for [a] hotel to be erected on Seventh avenue, between Thirty-second and Thirty-third be known as the Hotel Pennsylvania."

The Pennsylvania Railroad had completed its monumental Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead & White, six years earlier.  Across from the station on Eighth Avenue was the Post Office, also designed by McKim, Mead & White, and completed in 1913.  The proposed hotel would be an extension to the grand plan.  

McKim, Mead & White had been called back to design an architecturally harmonious structure (most notably in its six three-story Ionic portico columns).  The firm put architect William Symmes Richardson in charged of the design.  Like the Post Office, the hotel would be connected to Pennsylvania Station with underground passes, "so that patrons of the hotel can then travel in all directions, inside or outside the city, without going from under shelter," said the New York Hotel Record.  

As construction was underway, in its August 4, 1917 issue The Hotel World reported that the Hotel Pennsylvania "will be the world's largest hotel--2,200 rooms."  It was purposely designed to be "200 rooms larger than any hotel now in existence, or under construction."

The Hotel World, August 4, 1917 (copyright expired)

Because stores were not included in the street level plans, shops were located in the basement level.  Also on this level would be a grill room, a lunchroom, and a barber shop.  The ground floor held a men's café, "buffet-lounge," and the main restaurant, described by The Hotel World as "the largest dining room in New York City."  Also on the main floor were a "supper room," a tea room and an "elaborate soda grill."  Elsewhere in the building would be ballrooms, the largest of which was 72 by 144 feet, assembly rooms and private dining rooms.

The railroad had contracted "one of America's most prominent hotel men--E. M. Statler," to operated the Hotel Pennsylvania.  He promised The Hotel World, "We are going to the limit; we are going to build a hotel that is the 3qual, or the superior, of any hotel in the world, built to satisfy the very best people who travel, the most exacting and most critical."

With a construction cost of $10 million--15 times that much in today's money--the 22-story building was completed in 1919.  Although not entirely finished, on January 25, 1919 the Hotel Pennsylvania opened.  The New York Times reported, "Of the total of 2,200 rooms, 700 were ready for guests, and all were taken in a few hours.  Three thousand visitors viewed the building during the day and evening, and 2,000 of them dined and danced in the main dining room."

The newspaper estimated the daily income of the hotel, upon completion, at up to $15,000 per day.  Between 1,500 and 2,000 employees were necessary to run the massive operation.  "Sixty girls will be required to operate the hotel telephone exchange, with its 200 trunk lines," said The New York Times.  It added, "A few of the special features for the guests include a library of 4,000 volumes, Turkish baths, and swimming pools for men and women, and roof garden."

Guests entered through a foyer into the two-story main lobby that--following the ancient classical motif of Pennsylvania Station and the Post Office--was modeled after a peristyle court of a Roman period house.  Its barrel vaulted stained glass ceiling was design by G. Rae & Co.

Visitors passed through the foyer before being awe-struck by the two-story lobby. The Architectural Review, 1919 (copyright expired) 

Although the striking stained glass ceiling of the lobby was removed in 1942, the intricate terrazzo floors survived.  photos from Architecture magazine, April 1919 (copyright expired)

The magnificent hotel immediately became a favorite venue for high-profile events.  Two months after its opening a grand reception was held in the main ballroom for the Consul General of the new Polish Government.  After having been controlled by other powers for a century, Poland had been liberated in 1918 by the Allied Forces.  Along with more than 1,000 Polish New Yorkers, the reception was attended by Governor Al Smith and Mayor John Hyland.

The main ballroom.  Architecture magazine, April 1919 (copyright expired)

The Hotel Pennsylvania attracted well-known international guests.  In August 1920 British essayist and drama critic  William Archer checked in.  He had dipped his toe into play writing and his first work, War is War, was in rehearsals in New York.

Later that year, on December 28, well-known English suffragist Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, arrived at the Hotel Pennsylvania.  She told reporters she "was here this time not to propagate suffrage ideas but to smite Bolshevism wherever and whenever it appears."  She said, "I was astounded, in going about in your Southern States, to find this insidious doctrine of the destruction of society among the less educated people in those States."

A resident of those "Southern States," Mrs. Elizabeth Tyler, checked in on September 10, 1921.  The New York Times described her as "one of the 'Big Three' of the Ku Klux Klan."  She was known as the "Empress" of the Klan, but told the reporter "she had come to New York to shop and that official business of the Ku Klux Klan would be the lease of her worries."

Although presumably here to shop, she did defend the organization to The New York Times reporter.  She said its purpose was to preserve "sacred principles and noble ideals of chivalry" and "American ideals and institutions and the maintenance of white supremacy."   The article noted, "Mrs. Tyler, however, admitted that the organization was opposed to Jews and Catholics, as well as negroes."

In the meantime, guests in the café danced to Vincent Lopez's "world-famous" Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra.  The band's renown was boosted by a 90-minute radio show each week.   Lopez began each broadcast with "Hello everybody, Lopez speaking!"

Vincent Lopez conducts his Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra.  (original source unknown)

On October 19, 1939 popular bandleader Artie Shaw and his orchestra began a three-month engagement in the hotel's Coq Rouge café.  But, shockingly, a month later Shaw failed to show up.   Calling him "one of the ranking younger swingmasters," on November 22 The New York Times reported that he "had been absent from the band stand for a week" and "has severed all connection with his orchestra and left yesterday for Mexico."

Tony Pastor, the band's saxophonist, had taken over, but the hotel management was understandably displeased.  Reporters were told the "reorganized band" would be replaced within a week until Glenn Miller's band, scheduled to open on January 3, arrived.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra would return to the Coq Rouge repeatedly.  Like Vincent Lopez, some of his performances were broadcast.  When Artie Shaw abandoned his band, Miller hired Shaw's orchestrator, Jerry Gray.  It was during a 1940 Glenn Miller Orchestra engagement here that Gray wrote Pennsylvania 6-5000, the highly popular song that took its title from the telephone number of the hotel.

It was in the Coq Rouge in November 1944 that the singer of Les Brown's band, Doris Day, introduced their new song Sentimental Journey.

The main dining room.  Architecture magazine, April 1919 (copyright expired)

The wall fountain in the main dining room.  The Architectural Review, 1919 (copyright expired) 

The 1920's was a period of international political and social unrest.  On October 28, 1925 political dissention boiled over at the Hotel Pennsylvania.  The group Fasciati in America was celebrating the third anniversary of the Fascist march upon Rome in one of the rooms off the main ballroom that night.  The New York Times reported, "Much of the speechmaking was over when there came shouts and jeers from the street just below the windows of the room.  At first no attention was paid, but the shouts became louder as the crowd gathered strength."

The fury of the 400 anti-Fascisti protestors grew to a riot.  Three times the mob attempted to break through a police cordon and enter the hotel.   The article said that while the 25 police officers waited for back-up of 75 reserves, they "had a hard quarter of an hour repelling the attack."  All the while the chants, "Down with the Fascisti!" reached the meeting room above.

The Grill Room (left) and the Palm Room.  Architecture magazine, April 1919 (copyright expired)

In 1942 the hotel was given a make-over.  A full-page advertisement in Time magazine on May 4 that year touted "Nothing Old-fashioned but the Hospitality."  It boasted that all the bedrooms had been done over, "beautifully redecorated and furnished" with "scores of air-conditioned rooms, too."  The ad proudly announced, "In fact, the entire Hotel Pennsylvania lobby has just had a brand-new beauty treatment."  Included was the removal of the stained glass ceiling.  The former Coq Rouge was now called the Café Rouge.  "Here's the place to find that rare combination--delicious food, wonderful music by the nation's foremost orchestras, and a really spacious dance floor," said the advertisement.  Single room rates started at $3.85 per night, doubles at $5.50 (the latter equal to about $87.50 in today's money).

In 1954 hotelier Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel, renaming it The Statler Hilton.  It hotel continued to attract international figures, like Fidel Castro who checked in on April 22, 1959.  To garner favorable public opinion following his Cuban coup, he hired a public relations firm, ate hot dogs, and held babies like a campaigning politician.

Castro signs a photograph for 19-year-old Gladys Feijoo.  photo by George Lockhart, New York Daily News April 22, 1959

It was here on November 3, 1964 that former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy addressed his supporters after being elected to the United States Senate.  

When the hotel was sold for $46 million in August 1983, it underwent a massive renovation, emerging as the New York Penta.  Eight years later it retook its original name, the Hotel Pennsylvania.  But trouble dawned in 1997 when Vornado Realty Trust purchased the hotel with Singaporean hotel developer Ong Beng Seng.  In 2007 the owners announced plans to demolish the building to make way for a modern office building for Merrill Lynch.

In response, preservationists formed the Save Hotel Pennsylvania Foundation (later the Hotel Pennsylvania Preservation Society)  In November 2007 Manhattan Community Board 5 implored the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the building an individual landmark.  The request was denied.

The dining room fountain, according to Vornado Realty Trust, will be salvaged as part of a "museum of the hotel" later. photo via Wikimedia.

In September 2021 International Content Liquidations, Inc. initiated sale of the hotel's contents in preparation for demolition.  Chandeliers, furniture, the fitness equipment, and the historic guest rooms doors were sold.  Once the grand dame of New York hotels, the Hotel Pennsylvania's doom is apparently sealed.

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to
many thanks to reader Andrew Cronson for prompting this post.


  1. I don't understand why in August 1983, the latest renovation was a huge success But by the end of the century, the new owners were already announcing plans to demolish the building, and for what?? And why on earth did the Landmarks Preservation Commission not designate the building as a protected landmark?

    1. According to the reviews I read when I considered staying there, the renovation wasn't complete - many of the cheaper rooms got a coat of paint at the best. The water and electrical service needed replacing.

  2. I hope they bring back the underground passage from Herald Sq. to Penn.

  3. So sad that I'll now never get to see it in person. The more nor I glass megatowers go up in New York, the less excited I am to go to the trouble and expense of going there. Do the deveopers not get that many people feel that way?

  4. In 1966, a bunch of science fiction fans, myself included, checked out holding our annual World Science Ficrtion Convention at the then-Statler-Hilton. I remember being shown around. Sights included the enormous drained swimming pools, over which were built office space, as well as all the function rooms, some of which no longer exist. We did indeed hold the convention there, with numerous problems, including that the elevator operators were on strike because they were being automated out of existence. I remember the hotel rooms had window air conditioners, but also had hot, cold, and ice water faucets in the bathrooms, from the days before air conditioning was installed. Over the 1960s to 1990s, numerous science fiction, comics and Star Trek conventions were held in the hotel, and I have numerous photos with those facilities behind the people. Or just Google "1967 World Science Fiction Convention" to see reports, photos, etc. I'll be posting the link to this write-up to numerous science fiction news blogs and individuals.

  5. It's depressing to see another of New York's great hotels about to fall to the wrecker's ball. Despite the many negative reviews on Tripadvisor at the time (and many more since), I spent a night or two at this hotel while in transit through New York some years ago. Sure, it was looking somewhat rundown and tired, but I for one, did not find anything to complain about during my brief stay. So long, Hotel Penn, and thanks for the memories.

    1. It was never considered a particularly distinguished piece of architecture

  6. The original interiors were stunning. Unfortunately the hotel has been operated as a third rate low budget tourist hotel for decades and the interiors suffered miserably. Preservation in NYC in recent years has also suffered from the current incompetent Landmarks Preservation Commission, but to counter their gross negligence, the cities zoning should be changed to encourage preservation of these irreplaceable masonry facades and provide developers incentives to retain them rather than demolish them to build more cold, sterile glass boxes. NYC's history is poorer with the loss of another Mckim, Mead and White landmark building. We are a wasteful and thoughtless society. Preserving the elegant masonry facades alone is as Green and LEED gold worthy as one could ask for. Just wait until the owners of the historic non-landmarked Roosevelt Hotel on Madison Ave file for demolition one of these days.

    1. Alas, the hotel became notorious in later years for bedbug infestations. Several of the ballrooms were turned into a TV studio, where daily TV shows were filmed. I remember the "Skytop Ballrooms" on the 18th floor (actually higher because the several office floors didn't figure into the floor numbering) had ant colonies in them.

      I have numerous photos of interiors when I took photos at science fiction conventions there, and you can find many photos of the interior (all in the background) in these photos from the 1967 World Science Fiction Convention, here:

  7. After I lost a dream job that had shaped my life, NYC was a mess and I was living aboard a sloop in a harbor on Long Island's east end with vague plans to, well, I didn't know ... just to sail far away. Sorta. But I had to visit the city regularly to keep the unemployment checks flowing.

    After getting off the train one glorious midsummer Sunday, I walked to Seventh Avenue across from the Hotel Pennsylvania to wait for a downtown bus. The centerpiece of the panorama across the street wss a ragtag a cappella sidewalk chorus, conducted by a dude in shirtsleeves standing on a spindly chair, enthusiastically singing the "Hallelujah Chorus." On key.

    Somehow the scene just awed me. "And I was going to leave all this???" I asked myself in disbelief. The hotel and its own musical history (Pennsylvania 6-5000 indeed!) were very much part of that unlikely moment of my confirmation as a Manhattanite. I've never condidered moving since, but every vanishing landmark, small and large--like the Hotel Pennsylvania, makes me wonder why every day. —dFisher